The ‘Cultural Democracy’ Conference: Reflections

I am inspired, just as I was over thirty years ago, when Cathy Mackerras, co-founder of Telford Community Arts and speaker on the first panel of the day, produces their membership card from 1986. ‘Contributing towards the development of a society where there is no exploitation, where the majority of people have greater control over resources and where everyone can participate more fully in decision-making, regardless of race, sex, religion or social origin.’  It still sounds like a pretty good rallying-call to me.

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In response to a question from Adrian Sinclair, Creative Director of Heads Together Productions,  about what we can learn from the past, I say we could learn to build stronger and more wide-ranging alliances with others who share our principles and our analysis and we could remember how easy it is for the mainstream to hi-jack radical ideas and tame them (which is what I think happened to community arts in the 90s). What I don’t say, but talk about in the book, is how, over time, our personal and family commitments may change the ways in which we can be involved in this kind of work, saying ‘In the early days, [community arts had a workforce of largely young people, ready and willing to work for little money, in difficult conditions and for long hours. Over time, many of them wanted to start families, or find more secure living accommodation, or became exhausted; there was a growing need to find ways of sustaining passion and action that would not lead to collapse and burnout.’

In the afternoon, in answer to a question from the floor, Andrew Miles, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, comments that what maybe important is not what you do, but how you do it. He’s talking about how people participate but it reminds me of this table, which I found in a research paper (Pierre Leichner, Eve Lagarde & Christelle Lemaire (2014) Windows to Discover: A socially engaged arts project addressing isolation, Arts & Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice, 6:1, 90-97)


For me, it’s not whether this table is ‘right’ or not, what I think it does is emphasise is that there are very significant differences in how art work is made. And I think that these differences matter in terms of degrees of ownership and agency.

During the day, I keep seeing pairs and groups of people in animated discussions – agreeing, disagreeing, sharing – it’s very stimulating

Photograph by Simon Mooney


Photograph by Simon Mooney .


Photograph by Simon Mooney .


There’s a sizeable Irish contingent at the conference, from both the North and the South. I meet up with Padraic McQuaid, who now lectures in cultural policy at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology – when we first met, over twenty years ago, he was running a workshop with young people for Sliabh Beagh Community Development Association in Monaghan. A reminder – if one was needed – of all the good work going in rural areas, as well as in urban centres of population.

And so to the evening and the launch of Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art. Emotional for both Alison and for me – the end of an eight-year journey.

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I’m a walker, and I often think of how many people now walk freely on the hills of England, completely oblivious to how much they own to the Kinder Mass Trespass In my speech, I recall the thousands of people who worked so hard to make community arts happen –  I hope the book will make a small contribution to celebrating all those who commit themselves to cultural change.

I go home to email Evie Manning, artistic director of Common Wealth Theatre, who couldn’t be with us at the conference. I send her the ‘Towards a Cultural Democracy’ film and the Twitter feed #RighttoMakeArt. She responds ‘the video is really beautiful and affirming, made me want to wake up this morning and write a list of why theatre is important/powerful’.

La lutte continue.

This entry was posted in Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The ‘Cultural Democracy’ Conference: Reflections

  1. Gerri – it was a wonderful day. I had some great conversations with people i had and hadn’t met before, and it prompted me to think further about the definitions I’m currently working on for my PhD. An inspiring day. Thanks.

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